It’s Time for a “Virtual” Reality Check

Over the weekend, I read a story about a gamer making  a “cool half million” flipping a “virtual” property. Virtual property? Since when did fake real estate built atop a fake asteroid fetch $635,000? Compare that to the ridiculously low amounts being offered for real property (here on the planet Earth) in previously high-flying real estate markets.

Granted, those markets were suffering from a little irrational exuberance prior to the housing bubble, but their lots still offered tangible items like sticks, bricks, dirt, etc. And last I checked, I can’t grow vegetables on virtual properties built online. Farmville anyone?

You know Farmville, the Facebook application where participants pour hours of real world time plowing, planting and harvesting virtual crops for virtual gains. You can grow the size of your farm by increasing the number of neighbors, or if you can’t convince your virtual friends to be virtual neighbors, you can just give Facebook your credit card and they’ll gladly convert $20 to virtual acreage. Then you can plant even more crops to harvest even bigger gains towards that ultimate goal of…what is the ultimate goal again?

It’s Time to Get Our Hands Dirty Again

My kids are like a lot of kids these days, and many adults, too. They don’t necessarily mind work, but they don’t want to get dirty, or cold, or sweaty. They don’t mind sitting in front of a computer building virtual empires, or leading their favorite football team to the Superbowl in Madden 2010. But don’t ask them to toss a real ball, or swing a real hammer.

It’s too hot. It’s too hard. I might get hurt. There are bugs. It doesn’t pay enough.

I’m not exactly sure where it all started, but I distinctly remember a number of virtual “advancements” that seemed to encroach on our real world activities. They made us a little lazy, a little soft.

For example, when I was growing up, I remember parents scrimmaging against their kids at soccer practice. In fact, my grandfather was goalie for the parents’ team during scrimmages. We even ordered him a jersey with “Papa” on the back, number 60 (his age at the time). Now, most parents sit in their cars during practice, checking their fantasy football stats on an iPhone.

I’m guilty, too. This past season, I actually enjoyed the hour my daughter was practicing soccer because it was the one hour of the day I could tilt the seat back, turn off the radio, the telephone, the computer, and just rest. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe if we all unplugged and rested a bit more, we’d have time for true recreation. Not virtual fishing, but real fishing, complete with fresh air, smelly bait and muddy grass under our feet at the shore.

By the way, by the end of the season I had remembered my grandfather participating in all my practices, and made it a point to play soccer with my kids’ teams when the coach asked for volunteers. I learned a very important lesson – soccer was much easier when I was a kid!

We’ve Come a Long Way, or Have We?

Like I said, it’s tough to put a finger on the point where virtual connections became more important than real connections. Where virtual products and services were preferred over tangible ones. Where virtual reality was more engaging than our own reality. It has been more of a gradual decline.

Consider the following tug of war matches currently being fought in our society between the old-fashioned farts like me and those advancing new technologies and services:

  • Virtual books (Kindle) vs. real books. Disclaimer: I own a Kindle, and while I do like it, I miss real books. I miss the way an old book smells. I miss looking at the cover, seeing the occasional photos included in a biography, making notes in the margins, and bookmarking my favorite sections. I think I’ll eBay this Kindle and go back to hardcovers.
  • Email vs. real mail. Letter writing is officially a lost art. When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from a friend or loved one? Receiving a new email isn’t exactly an exciting event, but I can still remember how special it felt to receive a handwritten note from my mom while away at school, along with a few goodies for the dorm room.
  • Debit cards vs. cash. Spending cash hurts. The physical transaction of a twenty dollar bill leaving your wallet and being placed into the hands of a cashier registers far more in your brain than swiping a piece of plastic. Debit cards are more convenient, but if you need to get a grip on spending, go back to cash (while you still can).
  • Second Life vs. real life. I’ve never understood these virtual reality games. Why invest so much time and energy building something that only exists in a virtual world? I’d rather spend that time building something I can see, and touch, and enjoy in the real world. Doesn’t matter if it is a birdhouse or a real house.
  • Online learning vs. classrooms. I attended a traditional campus for the first two years of college, but finished my undergraduate degree several years later using an online degree program. It was nice not to have to go to class at end of a long work day, but some things were lost in the online learning world. I experienced very little interaction with other students, and missed professors asking me why I had a puzzled look on my face because I didn’t understand something, but was unwilling to raise my hand and ask the question.
  • Ipods vs CDs vs tapes vs records. That’s right; record albums. Remember those? Records, and even tapes and CDs, used to be made more special by the cover art, the lyric inserts, etc. I remember my mom enjoying looking through old record album collections…remembering how she had to hunt all over for the album, the first time she put it on her record player, etc. Can’t exactly get that from a download from iTunes.
  • Physical gold vs gold stocks and ETFs. Gold and silver are hot commodities these days, and many are scrambling for new ways to own both. My grandparents and great-grandparents also thought a lot of gold and silver, but preferred to hold actual coins. My great uncle even collected a few nice silver pieces. They thought certificates guaranteeing your gold was being held somewhere else was about as worthless as used toilet paper. Wonder what they would have thought of the many “investment” products created today that merely track gold and silver prices, but have no tangible assets to back it up.
  • Virtual friendships vs real friendships. Social media has helped connect many people who may not have otherwise been connected. In fact, the phenomenon known as blogging has connected you and I. But I still highly value offline friendships. Close friends and neighbors are the ones you can turn to in times of need, and likewise, you can be there for them.
  • Digital pictures frames vs. real pictures. Digital picture frames are neat, aren’t they? You take a bunch of photos, put them on a memory card, and stick it into a digital frame. The frame loops through dozens of photos, instead of just the one you’d see in a glass and paper frame. I still like real, hardcopy pictures. I’ve been going through many old photographs since my grandfather passed away, several that are 30-40 years old (and older). I’ve enjoyed reading the notes my grandfather wrote on the back of the photos – the date, who’s in the photo, a little story to accompany the picture. Can’t get that on a digital frame. Which makes me wonder; what will our kids and grandkids have to remember us? Will the portraits of our lives be reduced to a single CD of digital images?

I don’t mean to be a complete wet blanket. I am all for technological advances, but I also happen to believe that in many cases, change does not equal progress. I guess when it comes right down to it, I am old-fashioned. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

My mom and grandparents used to talk a lot about the “good old days.” My grandfather used to joke there wasn’t much good about them – especially the times we were at war, suffering through a depression, his family’s lack of now-modern conveniences like indoor plumbing, electricity, etc. But there were good things about those times, things I wish we could enjoy today.

More families stayed together. More families played together. Kids played outside, and for the most part, they could do so safely. People were more reluctant to get too deep in debt. People knew their neighbors. People trusted their government (well, for the most part). Kids respected their teachers. Music was still music. We gathered at the table every night for dinner. We moved slower. Life was just – simpler.


  1. I completed my degree online as well, and I’m so thankful I had that opportunity. I was working full time, and I simply wouldn’t have been able to do both if not for online classes. I’m very much an introvert, so going to classes on top of working with people all day long would have been too draining, and I don’t feel like I missed out at all.

    I’m also thankful for “virtual” friendships since I live in the boonies and work from home full time. No one I know “in real life” understands what being a work-at-home, homeschooling mom is like, and some of my virtual friends have become my best friends, to the point where we vacation together and call each other first when our babies are born.

    I definitely agree that there’s a tug of war between the good and “evil” of technology, but those two areas (as well as the Kindle, which has made it easier for me to start reading again, a habit I had gotten out of for a long time) are definitely blessings in my life.

    Smartphones, on the other hand — I have one, but I’m pretty sure it’s a proverbial ball and chain, not a blessing.

  2. you have hit the nail right on the head. i miss the “real” world. i recently took online classes, 3 of them to learn a language. let me tell you, language learning online is a joke. there is SOME interaction but not enough to learn it. language is best learned in a community of some sort.
    and yes, it would be nice to go back to a simpler world instead of this one that moves faster than the speed of life. i think there was probably more “margin” in those days. there is too much on our plates in the here and now, and it tires us out.

    thanks much for this article. it makes me rethink some of how we are doing life and i think we will make some changes.

  3. I love this post because it echoes my sentiments exactly. Whereas I do love the convenience of electronic bill pay and such, I so miss receiving a letter in the mail.

    When I was a kid, we all went to the park every single day. I would swing for hours, or play baseball, whatever. Now when I drive by that very same park, it is almost empty. I hate what electronics is doing to our kids. I am a guilty parent too because my kids have an xbox. However, there are not any tvs or computers in their rooms, and zero video games are allowed during the week.

    I long for the ‘olden days’ too. I wish I could have played on your grandpas team. He seems like he was a wonderful man.

  4. I like progress but I think I am also old fashion, it is easier to do a lot of things today but it just doesn`t feel as good as it felt once. We have more time for other things, but our kids are growing in front of computers instead of playing outside with the ball, it just seems to me that they don`t live the happy moments we have, and they are growing up to fast…

  5. You’re not a “wet blanket” – I agree with you on all of these!
    Kids in my neighborhood are out on their bikes and dribbling basketballs all the time – their cheeks are pink and they’re full of life energy. I’m glad that one commenter mentioned electronic bill-paying; that’s one thing I do. But I still walk to the bank to make deposits, enjoying the fresh air of the walk, and while I check e-mail often, I make sure to nurture and keep active my friendships with people whose arm I can touch if they’re sad and who can welcome me with a warm hug!

  6. FD,
    I am right there with you! Granted, I spend a lot of time on my computer, as I am trying to get a blog business going, but I try to balance that with a lot of “real Life” time. Just came back from a weekend at the lake with hubby, sans internet. Had a great time! We were a homeschool family and limited our kids internet and gaming opportunities. My kids are about grown now, but my son would prefer to skateboard or work on cars than be online, and my daughter would rather be in the studio dancing or on top of her horse than on facebook (well, MOST of the time!)
    I wrote a post recently about this and it has a cool link to a movie trailer that is so pertinent!
    BTW, I detest Farmville! If people would put that much time into their REAL lives, their businesses and their relationships would be successful!

  7. I love this article. My husband and I are making a point to raise our children with all the values listed in your last paragraph.

  8. There are some connections that are important (real friends vs online friends) and some connections that aren’t so much (physical books vs ebooks).

    I think you’re allowing nostalgia to get in the way on some of this stuff and you even kind of spoke to that [url=]here[/url]. Just because you don’t get the smell of the paper when you read a book that doesn’t mean that the information still isn’t just as useful. If you’re subscribing to the minimalist philosophy then having physical books so you can [i]smell[/i] them seems to go against the idea. You’re consuming the resources that it took to create the physical book and then you have to store and maintain that physical piece of property.

    I’ve struggled with this too because I always catch myself wanting to display the books I read on a shelf so that visitors can see how smart I am and it appeals to my nature to collect things too. But then I shake my head and see those are silly reasons not to use ebooks. I don’t have a kindle btw. I use the kindle app on my Droid X.

    I find myself moving more and more things to the digital world. I don’t want to manage boxes and boxes of books, cd’s, dvd’s or pictures. There is no value in doing so other than nostalgia IMO. If you want to experience the guilty pleasure of smelling books then just check out a few from the library. 😉

    Sorry about the rambling reply.

  9. I’m with you…then again, I’m not lol. Since I was born in 1990, I was kind of in the “ooh, virtual things!” yet also grew up with the physical as well. I’m a complete computer nerd, but also miss what you call “the good ol days”. Before getting my Kindle, I was torn! I felt like I was “betraying” paper backs. I love my Kindle but part of me still feels guilty. I still treasure face time (not on the iPhone but genuine contact) with friends and family. I love getting snail mail, even if it’s junk and sales papers. I love my iPod, I live off my debit card, and I want a digital picture frame, but love good ol’ pictures. It’s definitely a give and take depending on preference.

  10. Loved this article. Do not think you’re being a wet blanket or old-fashioned at all.

    Life is about balance. Few, if any of us, want to be Luddites, but it’s all about how you use a technology. And how dependent on it you become–and how much it takes away from engagement with the real world. For too many people, it’s an easy way out of “real” life and that’s why it continues.

    Real relationships take work and time and energy–and attention. (Imagine if folks who spend hours online daily with social media devoted even half of that time to interacting with friends and family in their real lives? Imagine the change in relationships.) It’s real life that makes your life worth living, not how many friends you have on facebook or the number of tweets you make (and we’re not even going to address the stupidity of most of what is put on facebook or tweeted. Those who actually communicate something worth sharing via Twitter are few and far between. It takes more skill to say something meaningful in 140 characters than most people possess.)

    Nothing wrong with online friends, per se. But who is REALLY in your life? Who has your back? In some cases, it seems that online folks DO pay more attention and have more in common with people than their real-life friends and family. But it doesn’t have to be either/or.

    Email is great as is the appropriate use of IMs and texting. (emphasis on appropriate)

    But a real letter? Seriously. Years down the road, it’s the real letters that will evoke the memories (even if you scan them!)

    It’s great to have the option of a kindle, especially if it gets more people to read more often. However, I still love books and I prefer them, no matter how physically inconvenient to carry around, to reading on the kindle. (Using a kindle-type product makes me want to read less, not more. My eyes are already hurting from hours on the computer, smartphone, etc.)

    And folks are right, technology, as wonderful and needed as it is, can suck us in. One of my close friends got an iPhone this year. This is a guy who never spent much time online or on his computer. (He’s a performer and he travels a lot all over the U.S and Europe. He adores people and they love him so he has friends everywhere he goes. Real people.)

    But he admits that his habits have changed, drastically. Where once he used to read all the time as he traveled around, now he’s constantly on the iPhone checking emails, using apps and going online. And because he needs to market his own work and connect with potential employers, he’s spending huge amounts of time with online networking for business.

    At least he hasn’t succumbed to constant texting or taking calls when he’s with people (the worse thing to my mind about today’s tech).

    It’s alarming how many people, of all ages, are mindlessly succumbing to the time/energy drains of technology. A little bit can go a long way. And it’s no substitute for real life (Studies are showing that young kids, teens no longer know how to socialize with each other in person. They’d rather text each other while they’re in the same room than actually engage in conversation. Egads. If that’s what it comes to, we’re in real trouble as a country. Politics is now reduced to YouTube moments. People think that video conferencing is the same as real-life visiting. Sigh. Let’s hope that folks wake up sooner than later.

    It’s great that some online games, etc. can teach people skills but you gotta be able to translate and use those skills in the real world. IT doesn’t matter how well people do in online games, for example. If you test poorly in school or elsewhere, you won’t get the grades or access to school or jobs that you want.

    So use technology to learn and to free you up to BE. Just BE and also to BE with others. Once you stop wanting to engage with real people, you’ve lost a huge part of your humanity.

    (Look around. Lots of major life-affecting decisions are made based on metrics, analytics, etc. without any real interaction with humans who have insights and expertise worth incorporating in the decision-making process. It’s the biggest problem we have today. People making decisions about our lives based on technology and not on real-life people and their needs.

  11. I tend to agree – the more you depend on a device more stranded you are when it dies.
    My work gave me an Ipod touch.
    I ended up using it as a hand held computer & not only was my work day tied to it as I traveled around but my home life too – I had buzzers set to everything, even feeding the dogs at 6am. The Ipod died a few weeks ago (from heavy use) & my kids ‘n I are so hosed – we’re disorganized, can’t find appt times & phone numbers when we need them. I can’t communicate with my customers in as timely of a manner as i could and respond as quickly as I used to 🙁 It’s a big time bummer.
    I moved from the excel spread sheet I’d used for my budget for a decade to a steno notebook this year – just because it was too inconvenient & took too much time away from family to sit in front of the puter & crunch numbers, log bills, etc. The book has been easier – it’s more mobile & never has a dead battery!
    I did try Mint & some others but those web based things were too high maintenance – for example, every time I hit an ATM it would show the transaction as a bank fee & I was constantly having to go in & fix the transactions.
    the more gadgets you have & use regulatory the more you have to replace when it breaks. Although I admit I work in repair so my perspective could be skewed. I find books more comfortable to lay around & read – easier to prop up as I change positions, etc. & they stand up to surprise rain storms a bit better 😉 The only bad side is the dog thinks they taste good 🙁

  12. I don’t get too nostalgic for the past. We tend to remember the good things and gloss over the problems. I love all the advances in technology (remember how hard it was to find out the tiniest bit of information that can be found via Google in mere seconds) , but I think we have to learn how to use them and not be consumed by them.

    It bugs me when technology becomes a substitute for real human interaction. One major reason IMO is an unfounded fear of strange people. I think all this blather about safety is a product of non-stop, 24 hour cable news featuring the most awful things that happen infrequently except on television. Just read “Free Range Kids” a few months ago and I’ve been reading her blog. She makes a good point that we are actually safer statistically than we were back in “the good ol’ days” but that our perception is what is off.

  13. A better title for this post would be “I Just Don’t Get It”. While I can understand your personal nostalgia for these older technologies, you parade your ignorance devaluing the “virtual” analogues. You devalue electronic forms, implying that there is something lost intrinsically in modern technology.

    I receive more e-mails from people than I would ever have received physical correspondance. Assuming every *personal* e-mail I receive cost a domestic (Canadian) stamp, my friends and family would be out $5-10, collectively per week. We have eschewed the novelty of the physical for what really counts: communication. You clearly didn’t take advantage of the many advantages of e-learning, like time-shifting, reviewability, and an opportunity to communicate with the professor individually which is much less limited in the classroom setting. Album art is still available, but it’s decoupled from electronic media, so if you want, you can get lyrics and album art (often encoded into the mp3 by default, if you know how to access it). And I object strongly to the idea that an accident of geography makes someone a better friend than persistant communication, shared interests, and common concerns.

    Crime rates are lower, people live longer, per capita wealth has increased, and people are better educated than ever before. The information age has reaped incredible dividends for huge numbers of people, allowing spouses and children to escape unhappy or abusive homes, those ostracised for their sexual orientation or other preferences to find communities where they felt safe, everyday people to be a part of great sociological movements like Wikipedia and revolutionize the availability of high-quality encyclopedic information, and concerned citizens to put the pieces togther and hold their governments to account.

    Give yourself a chance to move beyond your prejudices and actually experience these technologies, and you may discover the huge benefits which many (yes, predominantly young) people have already discovered.

  14. “Which makes me wonder; what will our kids and grandkids have to remember us? Will the portraits of our lives be reduced to a single CD of digital images?”
    Unlikely. Most grandkids wont have anything. Your photos will be locked behind passwords, or inoperable machines, or licensed software that they don’t have the keys to, or obsolete formats (such as the above mentioned CD), . .. And they’ll be lost forever. … So you should probably print a few of the good ones and put them in a box somewhere!

  15. I agree very strongly with Timmyson. Said it far better than I ever could, but I will throw out a few things anyway.

    You (and some commenters) don’t have to give up physical books for a Kindle. Kindles/e-books are more convenient for travel, or when you are out and about (I’d much rather read a chapter or three of Don Quixote rather than exchange uncomfortable looks with people in waiting rooms). That doesn’t preclude you from reading physical books unless you want it to. I have a couple e-readers on my Android phone, but that doesn’t really cut into my (way too big) home library.

    I have “virtual” friends that are much better friends than people I just happen to see physically on occasion. By the way, we also road trip to see them a couple times a year, so it isn’t like we’ve “never met”. I would turn to my friends in times of trouble much faster than I would turn to my cousins that I only seen around the holidays.

    My last big beef is the “Second Life vs RL”. I’m no fan of Second Life, but I’ve been playing MMOs and online RPGs since I was a preteen. Don’t you enjoy books, and the characters in them? Characters in books are no more “real” than a virtual character, but you feel invested and involved in them. The difference is that in virtual life games you build the character yourself. You design the story, the quirks, the character. Then you get to play your character with your friends, who also designed their own characters. When I log onto Warcraft for a raid with my friends, it is like sitting down with a group of friends to play board games, except that the game pieces are extremely personalized.

  16. Wow. This is an incredible post. I think you do bring up some extremely valid points.
    I think as a society we have become so plugged in, that now the art is actually being able to plug out. Now is a time where we have to learn to cultivate and notice presence, instead of continually distracting the mind with our iphones, our computers, our kindles and farmville. lol

    The blurring reality between what is real and what is not, is what I find is the scariest. Somehow I think we can get it all back, if we consciously make the decision to unplug ourselves on a daily basis.

    That way we can always come back to what is truly important. Thanks for the post =)

  17. Between work, blogging, and friends and family, I don’t have time to play virtual games anymore. I remember doing it right after college because I hadn’t made any actual friends yet, but having a core group of awesome people has solved my need to get lost in virtual worlds (other than my blogs of course, lol). I also love audio books and real books and refuse to get a Kindle…so far…

  18. Ha! I promise; I’m not really that crotchety (or old). And I considered that irony – perhaps I should start up snail-mail subscription newsletter. I hear those are really hot these days.

  19. Rebecca & Timmyson – the point is that some (not all ) of these technologies take the spice out of life. They make certain things less sensory & more cold. And also the more you depend on technology the more you could loose when it goes awry.

    I just had to tell a customer today that a power spike cost her not only her PC & external drive but also all of her digital pictures of her kids & grandkids. Now granted some of those might be replaced via emails, etc however, the ones she copied from her camera & never shared….

    And no RPG game can adequately substitute for hanging out & joking around with live humans. They can be fun to kill time but they don’t add value and can cost a lot more then a board game or a book. My son’s Dad spent hundreds on his gaming habit & probably still does. By himself.

  20. “I just had to tell a customer today that a power spike cost her not only her PC & external drive but also all of her digital pictures of her kids & grandkids. Now granted some of those might be replaced via emails, etc however, the ones she copied from her camera & never shared….”

    That really isn’t an argument against technology though. What happens if her house burned down or flooded and all of her physical photos burned up? Same situation. At least with technology there are things you can do to mitigate technology failures like off site backup (Mozy anyone?).

    Idea’s like “spice of life” are subjective and will be different for everybody. Hanging out with friends IRL is the spice of life for some people. Going on WoW raids, talking online are the spice of life for others. I don’t think it’s right to decide that your version of “spice” is better than another persons.

  21. I have to disagree! I read about this somewhere (can’t find the link…) that our when our brains remember the past, we play up the good parts more than the bad. We fall in the love with the idea that things were so much better, when in reality they weren’t.

    Technology can have its downfalls, but I think it’s improved life for the best. The fact that I’m able to look up any piece of information at any time on my iPhone makes me glad I live in this century.

  22. I do agree that having pictures and the like uploaded to the cloud is and amazing idea, but nothing will replace the look of a fresh polaroid in my hand or the feel of a handwritten letter on nice stationary that you know someone took their time and money to compose.

    I am a 90’s kid.

    I pine for the days when people listened to records or the radio. When the newspaper was where you got the news from. For film pictures, dinner eaten at the table, paper tomes sitting on a side table, a land line phone in the kitchen, fountain pens, wooden pencils, paper banking, and having a physical planner.

    Communication was local. Vacations were rare and treasured. Commercialism didn’t exist yet.

    I want a time when life was plain and people were people.

    • @TheSame

      I think you’re romanticizing a bit and I think you’re probably pining for something that never actually existed.

      I’m a kid of the 70’s and I think Polaroids are great until they fade to the point of being unrecognizable. I’m not really sure what sort of emails you guys are sending and receiving but who says that people still can’t write a letter on stationary? My wife and I still write each other hand written letters. This week though I’ve setup 2 inspections and received two quotes from businesses; all via email. Putting that to paper isn’t useful or helpful.

      Honestly I think Frugal Dad is using his blog as a bit of therapy because of the passing of his grandfather and maybe feeling some loss there.

  23. Amen, brother. Amen.

    The irony is as we become more “connected” technologically, the ugly truth is we are actually becoming less, well, connected.

    Len Penzo dot Com

  24. I agree with some of your points, but for the most part, the world is just different: no better or worse than before.

    Sure, more families stayed together. But women often didn’t have the option of leaving an abusive husband and students may have obeyed* their teacher for fear of corporal punishment, but they didn’t necessarily respect him or her, not to mention the fact that anyone who didn’t fit the mold was removed from school or quit.

    *My father went to school in the “good old days” but he most definitely did not follow the rules. He is living proof that hellions existed back then too.